US opposes 'destabilising' behaviour by China in Indo-Pacific, says Pentagon chief

US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper speaks during a joint news conference in Sydney on Aug 4, 2019.
US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper speaks during a joint news conference in Sydney on Aug 4, 2019. PHOTO: REUTERS

SYDNEY (REUTERS) - The United States says China is destabilising the Indo-Pacific, US Defence Secretary Mark Esper said on Sunday (Aug 4), charging Beijing with predatory economics, intellectual property theft and “weaponising the global commons”.

The comments by Esper on his first overseas trip as US defence secretary threaten to inflame already heightened tensions between Washington and Beijing as they wage an escalating trade war.

"We firmly believe no one nation can or should dominate the Indo-Pacific and we are working alongside our allies and partners to address the region's pressing security needs, Mr Esper told reporters in Sydney.

China's increasing assertiveness, especially in the energy-rich South China Sea, has raised concerns within the region and the US is challenging Chinese maritime hegemony and seeking stronger ties with nations pushing back against Beijing.

"We also stand firmly against a disturbing pattern of aggressive behaviour, destabilising behaviour from China. This includes weaponising the global commons, using predatory economics and debt for sovereignty deals, and promoting state-sponsored theft of other nations' intellectual property," said Mr Esper.

China has unnerved the region and angered the United States by installing military equipment and other facilities on artificial islands it has made in the disputed South China Sea.

China claims large parts of the South China Sea through which roughly $3.4 trillion in shipping passes each year.

Countries including Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam contest the territorial claims.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last Friday (Aug 2) decried "decades of bad behaviour" from China that have hampered free trade, laying out a case at a South-east Asian forum for Washington's escalating trade war with Beijing.

US President Donald Trump on Thursday slapped 10 per cent tariffs on $300 billion in Chinese imports, stunning financial markets and ending a month-long trade war truce. China vowed on Friday to fight back.

Both Mr Esper and Mr Pompeo met their Australian counterparts in Sydney on Sunday  at an annual security forum where the United States and Australia pledged to strengthen opposition to Chinese activities in the Pacific.

The United States and its Western allies worry that China is using foreign aid to secure greater influence over small Pacific countries which control vast swathes of resource-rich ocean.

Australia, traditionally the major power in the South Pacific, has promised up to A$3 billion (S$2.81 billion) in grants and cheap loans to counter what Washington describes as China’s “payday loan diplomacy”.

“Cooperation with us and our Australian friends bring mutual benefits, not zeros, deals where one side wins and other risks losing,” said Mr Pompeo in a thinly veiled criticism of China’s aid.